Aspects of the Self | Verena Kaspar-Eisert, 2010

on Judith Fegerl’s key aspects of work including the solo-show SELF at Kunstraum Niederoesterreich, Vienna, 2010

The issue is delineation and the emphasis of uniqueness. The word self, in German selbst, is used to differentiate one subject from others. This presumes self-confidence. This confidence is challenged in Fegerl‘s work at the Kunstraum Niederoesterreich, thereby enabling the development of new forms of self-conception.Three major factors encounter and exchange with one another in SELF. The title stands for the following components: for the artist — who exposes herself with a solo show; for the space — which becomes the only exponent in this work; and for the viewer — who confronted with the apparent emptiness in the space sees themselves thrown back to his/her self (before he/she realises that he/she is situated inside the work).

Judith Fegerl dedicates this show to the space. The Kunstraum Niederoesterreich here represents all of the exhibition institutions that have already housed her works, and those that are yet to do so. Showing the space itself: liberating it from all of the architectural installations, the fixtures and fittings and useful sockets and connections and the light fittings — to show the space itself is the artist‘s key concern in this work. Judith Fegerl pursues her work of recent years in a consistent manner in this way, and emphasises the common denominator in her work. She shows its basic collective context: the dependency on the electricity that feeds it. As a network the electric cables form the connections between her works for Fegerl.

With SELF the artist wants to see the exhibition space as an autonomous organism capable of asserting itself — even without any of the artworks plugged in that are usually supposed to be provided. The character of the space can be experienced when it is released from its service functions for art exhibitions. The cladding is removed from the modern exhibition space, the so-called white cube, by Judith Fegerl when she frees it from its functionality and reveals its raw physical presence.

Since the 1970s artists have regularly addressed the white cube in museums, art spaces and galleries. Since the 1920s most people have regarded the white cube as the ideal situation for the presentation of art as a space where the architectural components impact as little as possible on the exponents within.1 The methods of investigation employed by artists to engage with this system range from appropriation to site-specific installations that raise issues regarding the exhibition venue itself, the historical conditions of exhibiting, museum practise itself and the reception of contemporary art. In this context in 1986 (and again in 2008 at exactly the same location) Chris Burden had part of the ground in the museum (the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, MOCA) dug out with a bulldozer.2 Three staircases enabled the visitors to explore the museum, literally, in depth. Burden plays on both the museum‘s architectural and its organisational basis with the word Foundation. Monica Bonvicini engages with the physical experience of space and architecture and challenges the conditions of the reception of contemporary art in her work. For Plastered (1998) she had a gallery‘s floor covered with plasterboard panels. The visitors broke into the floor very audibly and left an expanse of debris behind them, a demolished exhibition space. Back in 1969 Christo had already made the MCA (The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago) itself the work by cladding the entire building. As Brian O‘Doherty writes: The object is lost and mystified. Individuality of structure — the identifying morphology is replaced by a general soft outline, a synthesis that like most syntheses furthers the illusion of understanding.3

With SELF Judith Fegerl now shows the exhibition space as an energy supplying shell for art objects that avoids its original intended functionality and itself gains the status of an artwork. The engagement with, and this kind of treatment of, the exhibition space follows Judith Fegerl‘s preoccupation of many years with the interface and overlap between human beings and machines. The artist frequently works with combinations of inorganic and organic material, and creates constructions of the highest technical perfection. Her sculptures, which she breathes life into using electricity, are shaped in a conspicuous aesthetic of the materials. The electric network links the individual works and drives them. Fegerl undresses the art space as a body without organs 4 with her current show. SELF is the conceptual basis and prerequisite for all of her previous works, which reference, for their part, physical and psychological states of the human body.

In Tension Object (2006) Fegerl places the feeling of shock that is verbalised with the phrase hair standing on end on a visual level and links emotional tension with physical tension: at regular intervals an electric charge of 400,000 volts is sent through human hair hanging like a wig from a white ceramic ball to make the hair stand on end all round.

This interest in the translation of experiential values and feelings into physics-based machines is also reflected in Galatean Heritage (2007). A specially constructed knitting machine autonomously produces an amorphous object made of untreated sheep‘s wool over the course of a few weeks. The title of the work alludes to Ovid‘s Pygmalion, who forms himself a female form out of ivory that is then brought to life by Aphrodite‘s intervention. The yearning for a machine that can independently create something new and the inanimate object that comes to life form a bridge in terms of content to science-fiction literature and to legends that Judith Fegerl frequently ties in with her work as metaphors. The male notion of erotically charged devices that replace or simulate natural reproduction as well as even death have generated numerous bachelor machines from artists, philosophers and writers. Judith Fegerl‘s Galatean Heritage can also be read as a feminist version of these.

Fegerl completed her first architecture-related work, Simulating Intelligence, in 2008. The over 60 metre long row of display windows along the rear of an exhibition space (Kunsthalle Wien) was draped with rows of translucent curtains inspired by the interior fittings of the institution. Behind these an area of light runs from one end to the other in a self-sufficient loop. The building is given a pulse by Fegerl, a signal to the outside, that renders the (technological) spirit of the architecture visible.

This engagement with the volume of the architecture is also pursued by Fegerl in 2010 with Nystagm. The exterior skin of the Austrian Cultural Forum in the centre of New York was given flickering surfaces of light by Fegerl that are spread along the entire height of the building. Nystagmus is a physical failure evocative of the uncontrollable rhythmical movement of a bodily organ — i.e. of an eye. Fegerl transfers this organic disfunction to the architectural organism, and suggests a disturbance of the in-house lighting system. The nervous illuminated signals look like an attempt to communicate — a signal directed at the city that cannot be decoded in the end, one that remains self-reflective, an affirmation of existence.

Judith Fegerl also quotes science-fiction visions of the 1960s and ‚70s here where computers emancipate themselves from their creators and show human traits, like, for example, HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick‘s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The title of the sculpture The Chinese Nightingale (2006) is a reference to the story of a Chinese emperor who saw the promise of an unending source of spiritual pleasure and deep emotions in the mechanical reproduction of a nightingale. In the fairytale the reproduction of the bird is intended to deliver emotion at the flick of switch. Fegerl translates this human yearning into a sober functional aesthetic, so articulating a trend in dealings with the body: the desire for perfection, the optimisation of biological abilities and the control of failure are not only to be found in fiction. Technical aids in the field of medicine, genetic research and practices in cosmetic surgery are applied to correct human infirmity and shortcomings. Non-organic parts are fused with the human body (contact lenses, artificial limbs, pacemakers…) to rectify deficiencies — an approach driven in the final analysis by the fantasy of immortality.

Judith Fegerl links organic and inanimate material on paper, too, as a support. Collaged arrangements are made of human hair, copper wire (some of which is soldered), iron nails, latex, bandaging or metal clips. Some of these arrangements look like circuit diagrams or construction plans for machines augmented with the appropriate symbols. The infinity sign is a recurring element in these works. Other sheets of paper are pierced with nails and then patched up with bandages and given titles like shunt — a term used in electronics for a conductor joining two points of a circuit, and in the field of medicine to describe (artificial) connections between systems not otherwise linked. The paper works accompany the sculptural work. They are sketches, adjuncts and autonomous works in her oeuvre.

With revers (2010) Fegerl finally goes a step further in the intertwining of physical and cerebral conditions with technology and machinery. In cooperation with the Red Cross, visitors have blood taken as part of the installation. Human beings and machines are stage-managed as a hybrid entity in an artificially connoted setting. The invasive needles open up the body and form an interface. The blood is taken from a closed cardiovascular system. Fed into the machine and stored it is the biological bearer of human data. Convoluted electric cables and rubber tubes constitute the interface to the blood donors, forming a bloodstream where the blood-providing apparatuses build a hub between the donors‘ bloodstreams and the recipients.5 This performative human-machine setting behind light-pulsating screens and the work with the human circulatory system are in preparation for the confrontation with the subcutaneous electricity network of the architecture in SELF: arteries and wiring.

As was already a central factor in the works Simulating Intelligence and Nystagm, in SELF the architectural subconscious is visualised too. In SELF Judith Fegerl emphasises the inner life of the architecture by connecting the appropriate cable to the plug sockets but blocking the output because the cables are attached to themselves in large loops. Hidden remnants of data circulate in the subconscious of the machine. Unwilling to unpack themselves or reach the surface, they move endlessly in a closed system committed only to neurotic self-referentiality.

On entering the installation SELF, subscribing to traditional seeing habits in the unclad space the visitor looks for objects, and soon becomes aware of his/her own nakedness. Judith Fegerl lets the character, the ‚self‘, become visible — free from the constraints of ascribed functions.

1 Brian O’Doherty Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1999 (originally published in Artforum magazine in 1976 & 1986)

2 Los Angeles Downtown News, 09.11.2008, p.44 (

3 O‘Doherty, p.103

4 Henning Schmidgen, Das Unbewusste der Maschinen. Konzeptionen des Psychischen bei Guattari, Deleuze und Lacan, Munich 1997, p.31. Here in translation.

5 Claudia Marion Stemberger: Limens, Transitions, Passages: Judith Fegerl‘s revers.

Vienna 2010; ( Here in translation.